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The Ruin Garden: An Old Idea That Could Help Today’s Cities Fight Blight

In Gary, Indiana, a long-abandoned church will become one of the country’s first ruin gardens. It could be a model for other cities, too.

City Methodist Church, a grand, Gothic cathedral in Gary, Indiana, has been abandoned for almost 50 years. Yet you can see it all over the internet, on Flickr and Instagram, and in movies like Transformers 3. It’s billed as “one of the best known and most popular Midwest locations for urban explorers.” The church, which has been vacant since the 1970s as the steel industry bottomed out in Chicago and northern Indiana, has enjoyed an unlikely second life as a particularly beautiful, even sublime, decaying structure–what some call “ruin porn.” 

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The church was in the news this week after it became 1 of 33 winners of the Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge, which awards cities around the country with grant money for their best project ideas. Gary’s Redevelopment Commission will receive $163,333 to transform City Methodist into a more official destination for the city.

But the city isn’t aiming to restore City Methodist–nor will it be knocked down. Instead, the commission is exploring a new approach to blight, turning the crumbling church into a safe public park, also known as a ruin garden. “Like other Rust Belt cities, Gary’s battle with blight has historically offered two solutions: either demolition or full rehabilitation,” explains Sarah Kobetis, Gary’s deputy director of planning, over email. “Our project offers a new strategy that could change the way people think about blight.”

Though they aren’t very common today, ruin gardens (or ruins gardens) have a long and fascinating history that dates back to the Renaissance, when Italian artists and writers became enamored with Roman antiquity, and the ruins of ancient Rome that dotted the city became places of inspiration and meditation.

“The humanist image of the ruins helped to resolve the anxieties of Roman patrons about the transience of their own fame and the preservation of their own monuments after death,” writes art historian Kathleen Christian in a 2008 piece. “Holding a mirror to the city’s ruined landscape, the archaeological garden taught how time devours all, yet, as a sanctuary for the imagination, it was also a remedy for future ruin.”

City Methodist Church

Centuries later, in 18th-century England, landscape designers tried to replicate the effect with fake ruins–artificial follies that were added to the elaborately planned and staged “natural” landscapes. You can find a few ruin gardens in the United States, too, though in most cases they’re the artificial kind, carefully constructed “ruins” that were built to look as though they had crumbled over centuries. (You can even buy a premade ruin for your own garden.)

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In contrast, Gary’s ruin garden will exist within the real ruins of City Methodist. Kobetis points out that the church is one of the most visited places in the city, despite the fact that it’s not safe to explore. “The fact that the building, in its current condition, is not structurally sound has not deterred visitors,” she writes, “so turning the space into a ruins garden felt like a mutually beneficial way to preserve what’s left of one of the city’s most notable structures, while also creating a new public amenity in downtown Gary for both tourists and community residents to enjoy.” 

Gary isn’t the only Rust Belt city that has iconic “ruins” with considerable architectural value–and it’s not the first city whose ruins have become popular tourist destinations in their decay. Blight, for better or worse, is a muse to many photographers and artists, spurring a lively debate about the merits of so-called “ruin porn,” and whether it aestheticizes and exploits a neighborhood’s economic and social struggle. At the same time, these ruins put cities in a difficult position: They can either pay for a costly restoration, or pay to have these often significant buildings razed.

In Gary, the city is testing a third way that could ease the economic burden of blight and preserve the ruins for the public–in much the same way other civilizations have done for hundreds of years. 

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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